Premastication: the second arm of infant and young child feeding for health and survival?


Gretel H. Pelto, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. E-mail:


Premastication of foods for infants was a crucial behavioural adaptation to neoteny that ensured nutritional adequacy during the period of complementary feeding throughout the course of human evolution until recent times. While the paps and gruels of agricultural systems provided an alternative and modern food technology appears to make it unnecessary, we argue that, in addition to its role in nutrition, premastication also played a crucial role in supporting infant health. Its abandonment, particularly in poor communities, has placed children at increased risk of inadequate nutrition and decreased ability to confront infections associated with the introduction of complementary foods. We present two empirical studies. Section I is a cross-cultural study of the ethnographic literature in order to estimate prevalence in non-Western societies. One-third of ethnographies in the worldwide sample with data on infant feeding report premastication. Section II presents the results of a qualitative study in China, conducted in order to provide data on the likelihood that this percent is incorrect due to under-reporting. The finding that 63% of Chinese university students received premasticated food as infants, whereas none of eight ethnographic studies performed in Han China identified premastication in their reports, provides support for the conclusion that the cross-cultural study grossly underestimates its prevalence in non-Western societies. Section III is a discussion of potential benefits and risks of infant exposure to maternal saliva. We conclude with the argument for a concerted research effort to determine whether premastication can solve not only the ‘weanling dilemma’ in poor countries but also some of the health problems among the better-off.